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Published: Sunday, 9/4/2005

In Russia, facts don t stand in way of the story

Russian pundits took time off from selling Russia s slide to autocracy to earn Brownie points with the Kremlin last month.

A couple of major semiofficial Russian media outlets launched a misconceived Kremlin idea that the United States may be toying with plans to organize a coup in Russia.

All they did to substantiate their dirty hints was take a couple of quotes out of context from what I deem as one of the most profound and relevant policy briefs on Russia of late. Authored by Anders Aslund, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it is titled, Putin s Decline and America s Response.

The brief shows how Russian President Putin s successful policies and equally successful measures to concentrate the power in his own hands have stifled and reversed the market reforms, boosted corruption, and rendered the nominally democratic political system autocratic and dysfunctional. Mr. Aslund rightly draws the conclusion that such a system is unstable and may crumble before Mr. Putin s term expires in 2008.

The probable outcome is either a coup by Mr. Putin s ex-KGB cronies who dominate the power structure or a revolt by the impoverished Russian populace, Mr. Aslund writes.

There is one thing the United States should do in this situation, he advises: to boost the U.S. support of Russian nongovernmental organizations, which have proved to be the most effective elections observers in the former Soviet states some of which have recently had democratic revolutions.

It was this most accurate observation that made the red flags go up in the Kremlin.

In this way, Aslund, and in effect the Carnegie Endowment, are calling upon the White House to roll out another color revolution just like the ones in Ukraine and Georgia, writes RIA Novosti, a Russian news and commentary agency. Neither of the two expressions quoted by Novosti appears in Mr. Aslund s policy brief. Neither does he call for a revolution in Russia.

Surprisingly, though, the uncanny author of the Novosti article comes up with a rather fitting name for such a course of action a birch revolution, after one of the symbols of Russia.

Novosti later warns that any such development would be the end of any hope for liberals in Russia, exaggerating the threat from Russia s chauvinists, a favorite Kremlin trick.

There are three things to be said here.

First, the U.S. response suggested by Mr. Aslund would demonstrably increase Russia s chance to prevent any forceful change of regime, simply through democratic general elections, at all levels of government.

This is just the opposite of what RIA Novosti, where yours truly was a staff writer and editor in the perestroika and early post-Soviet eras, claims in its article, which is insidiously titled, U.S. Should Rethink Its Policy Toward Russia. It makes me sad to see the agency revert to its Cold War practices.

Second, the Carnegie Endowment normally does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views presented [in the articles published by the Endowment] do not necessarily reflect the views of the Endowment, its officers, stuff, or trustees, as a disclaimer placed under Mr. Aslund s policy brief states in black and white. It goes without saying that the U.S. government has nothing to do with the brief.

Third, Mr. Aslund hits the nail on the head when he warns about the possibility of a coup by what many may see as Mr. Putin s loyalists his ex-KGB cronies he has invested in to the point of no return.

Those people are loath to see their power jeopardized by elections, especially by the 2008 presidential election, in which President Putin is banned by the constitution from running. Seeing that they control Russia s power structure, that the military is corrupt and dysfunctional, and that the people are largely apolitical, they may well succeed unless NGOs in Russia get a boost.

So the United States would do Russia and itself a favor if it follows Mr. Aslund s advice and helps save Mr. Putin from harming himself and others.



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